Archive for Gene Hackman

Plasterworks of the cinema

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , on September 2, 2016 by dcairns


Last week I had the great pleasure of interviewing production designer Leslie Dilley on the set of kids’ TV show Teacup Travels. Les designed James Cameron’s THE ABYSS, and as art director worked on Richard Lester’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS/THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, as well as STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, ALIEN, SUPERMAN… not to mention his being one of the whistlers in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, which is the one that made my jaw drop.

The interview was fun, but the conversation afterwards was even better — of course, I wasn’t recording that. But Les relaxed and told a couple of stories of mishaps, both ironically centered around the craft speciality that was his entrée into the film business — plastering. And both involving Gene Hackman movies.


On LUCKY LADY (Stanley Donen, 1975), Les was working with his mentor Norman Reynolds, and had the job of preparing sheeted several corpses which had to be flung off the side of a boat. I’m not sure if this scene made it into the movie, as I gather three different endings were shot. Les prepared nine or ten chickenwire frames and plastered them over to make good, realistically heavy corpses. But he was rather worried that the Mexican extras who had to commit these remains to the sea might not by hefty enough to actually get them over the side — they were all quite little fellows.

Donen called action and Les hid below-decks, listening nervously. Splash. Splash. He began to relax — evidently the diminutive Hispanic seamen were managing their task with aplomb. Splash. Splash. Then — disaster — sudden hilarity. Generally the very effect you want to avoid in a funeral at sea.

Rushing on deck, Les learned the cause of the laughter — the plaster corpses were bobbing to the surface, one after the other. Despite being extremely heavy, they all contained enough air to be buoyant, something Les had never learned at school.


The laws of physics will trip the filmmaker up every time. Les ended up skipping RETURN OF THE JEDI to do EUREKA, since he was very interested in working with Nic Roeg. For this movie, he built a tree that Gene Hackman has to sit under in the Klondyke. The tree was constructed at a studio in Vancouver and shipped up north to the snowy climes for assembly on location. All the branches slotted into the trunk perfectly, according to Les’s prepared diagram, and Les secured them with plaster and scrim, working in progressively colder sub-zero temperatures as the evening wore on. They were absolutely solid when he left.

But then he got a call. Gene Hackman had been filmed at his little prospector’s campfire under the tree, and had narrowly escaped being brained by a falling plaster branch.


What had happened was that as the temperature got insanely low, the plaster had stopped bonding, since the water content of it would freeze before the plaster was dry. This ice would have still done the job and held the branches in place, probably securely enough for people to climb the tree if they’d wanted, except that the heat from Hackman’s fire had risen up the tree and started them thawing.

The lesson: people on movies are always doing strange things under pressure of time, such as building plaster trees in arctic conditions, and this is exactly how accidents happen… and it’s the things you know perfectly well how to do that will suddenly turn treacherous in these circumstances.


High Tec

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 7, 2015 by dcairns


THE FRENCH CONNECTION II is a pretty good follow-up, really. Different enough from the original (we’re in France, the whole time, for one thing) it still has enough of the same grime (Marseille gives good grime), loud, incoherent sound, and surliness to feel like a continuation. Instead of a car chase, it has a foot chase at the end, and a loooong sequence where Gene Hackman’s ghastly Popeye Doyle gets forcibly shot up with skag by the baddies and then has to undergo a gruelling cold turkey in a French police cell. You almost feel sorry for him.

As Doyle’s opposite number, Bernard Fresson, that strange hybrid bull/bulldog/bullfrog is grumpy and leaden enough to make a good foil for the ugly American in his midst (if one man can be said to have a “midst” — and if any one man can, that man is surely Fresson).


Ah, Popeye Doyle. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of his complete refusal to comprehend that French people speak French, a language containing several different words from English. And that slang expressions travel less well than simple, clear speech.

Gene Hackman probably had a better time on this one than on the original, since his star was rising and Frankenheimer generally looked after his stars (while yelling, crimson-faced at everyone else). William Friedkin had told him, “I wouldn’t even hire you to play Gene Hackman,” and he meant it to sting. Still, Hackman is put through his paces, here, what with the sweltering foot chase through the streets and docks, the cold turkey, and having to explain things to French bartenders. The movie could be usefully augmented by an insert of a cardiogram in the bottom left corner monitoring how close Popeye/Gene is getting to explosive infarction from one moment to the next.



Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2015 by dcairns


In THE FRENCH CONNECTION II, Gene Hackman, pursuing Fernando Rey during a raid on his heroin lab, passes an inexplicable fluffy pooch, lolloping gaily in the opposite direction. A nod to Bunuel? Or does every heroin lab have a mascot?

While in THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, a painfully young Anthony Hopkins tucks his son into bed, ignoring a cuddly lion with Anthony Hopkins eyes.


Tossing a coin, I think I’ll now proceed to deal with THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, a John Le Carre adaptation which sees John Box, David Lean’s designer, stepping up to produce, and Frank Pierson, prolific screenwriter, steps into the director’s chair. He does pretty well, I think — he shoots proper shots, with ideas behind them, not just coverage. Some of the cutting is fantastic, inventive and unusual in its rhythms and transitions. Some of it just doesn’t work. When we cut from one end of a room to another, it’s a shock to hear Ralph Richardson’s voice continue, because it looks like a scene change.


Christopher Jones shares the spotlight with Hopkins. An up-and-coming prettyboy, he did a great James Dean impersonation in WILD IN THE STREETS — the muscles around his mouth pout and pucker and strain in exactly the configurations of Dean’s face, so it was biology as artistic destiny. Here, he’s dubbed because he couldn’t do a Polish accent, but David Lean didn’t realize that when he grabbed him for RYAN’S DAUGHTER. Unsuitably cast as a British officer, dubbed again, and straitjacketed by Lean’s meticulous direction, Jones seems to disappear from the screen even while he’s on it. An empty outline, a shadow floodlit out of existence, the sound of one hand failing to clap. Lean evidently hadn’t heard Nick Ray’s dictum: Don’t Fuck With A Natural. All Jones’s methody tricks added up to was a compulsion to muck about onscreen, to do what he felt like in the moment. Lean sat on his chest and wouldn’t let him have fun, so all his talent froze up and died.

Despite the dubbing, he’s alive in this one, playful and unpredictable. An exciting contrast with the Brits, who are all technique on the surface (but, of course, deeply eccentric in their essence — I very badly wanted to see Richardson to interact with Jones). Put together with Susan George, another untutored misbehaver, Jones turns sex panther (the two had a fling, brutally nullified when she brought over a toothbrush — “No way, baby,”). Her chubby face is out of control. It’s amazing seeing onset doc footage of her making STRAW DOGS, because the charismatic, cute girl you see is nowhere to be found in the sullen, dead-eyed performance Peckinpah captured. Here, she’s antic, a rough baby.


Where the movie goes wrong is East Germany — once Jones is out on his own (in Cybulski shades) with no crisp Brits to bounce off, things go to pot. Le Carre MAY have been responsible for the wan guff of romance, gasped into the plot without a whiff of social reality — on an off-day, he can do twee — but Pierson should have stomped on it. The end creds say “Filmed at Shepperton Studios and on location in Europe” and those last bits feel as vague as that makes it sound, not helped by rendering dialogue in English which ought to be in German. Wally Stott parples away with his East German truck jazz as Jones and a leaden Pia Dagermark listlessly enjoy their idyll, overseen by a broken-toothed child who seems to squat on the movie’s chest, paralysing it like the imp in Fuselli’s Nightmare.

The wrap-up is satisfying, though it hits the button marked “message” rather too hard. The darkly ironic final twist helps take the curse off it.